Officials in Long Beach believe that a computer programming error may partly explain why the Police Department had the worst record among major California cities for solving serious crimes for most of the last 15 years.
Eleven times since 1975, the department was on the bottom of a California Department of Justice list ranking departments by their rate of solving crimes.
But the problem may lie in how a computer has been programmed to recognize a crime as solved.
The department has been listing a crime as “cleared” only when it is solved within the same month it is reported, police said. For example, a rape that is reported in February but solved in April would not count as cleared.
“We just found that out, (but) it has been happening since 1975. That’s when they implemented this program,” said Assistant Police Chief Eugene Brizzolara.
Long Beach’s performance was compared to that of 10 major cities: Anaheim, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Ana.
Last year, for example, the city solved 14.2% of its cases, compared to the statewide average of 22%.
“People will probably say we’re looking for a scapegoat,” Brizzolara said, “but the truth is that the system was not designed correctly.”
Charlotte Rhea, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Justice, said Wednesday that she was not aware of any other police agency listing crimes as solved only when they are solved within the same month as they were reported.
Police officials could not say what the figures would be had the computer program in the city’s information services bureau been written differently. City officials said they plan to review last year’s figures using an updated program.
Although they expect the new statistics to improve the Long Beach department’s ranking in solving serious crime, officials said the computer program can hardly be responsible for all of the beleaguered department’s troubles.
“It’s obviously going to improve our clearance rates, but not enough that I would conclude that we don’t have a problem,” said Assistant City Manager John Shirey.
Brizzolara said, “This is not the total answer” for the poor statistics.
Police still cite several explanations for the department’s poor showing, including understaffing in the detective bureau and an unusually high number of officers taking time off because of job-related injuries.
Long Beach police claim injury status nearly three times more often than the statewide police average. Once off work, they take an average of twice as long to return to the job as their counterparts throughout the state.
The department also has lost officers at an increasing rate, most through disability retirements, regular retirements and resignations. On Oct. 31, 9.8% of the force had left the department in 1990, compared to 6.6.% in 1989 and 4.9% in 1988.